Extreme solar storms spark a need for innovation


NASA has warned that extreme solar storms could have disastrous implications for planet Earth. It’s not too soon to start thinking of possible solutions. (EPA/NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory)

Extreme solar storms are the new killer asteroids – the intergalactic calamity that has the potential to send the human race back to the Victorian age. A solar storm wouldn’t cause physical damage the way an asteroid hurtling through space would, but it would likely cause planes to crash and power grids to fail. A massive solar storm similar to the one in 2012 could wipe out GPS, satellite communication, the power grid, the Internet – just about anything that would be affected by a sufficiently large direct electromagnetic blast from the sun.

The good news is that, just as NASA started the ball rolling on ways to protect Earth from the threat of a rogue asteroid tumbling through space, it is now working on a plan to protect the earth from solar storms. Called “Solar Shield,” it’s an experimental forecasting system rigged up with a few satellites already in space. These satellites constantly monitor the surface of the sun and track the size and shape of especially large coronal mass ejections (CMEs) heading away from the sun, enabling researchers to predict where and when solar storms might hit the Earth. It’s still in testing phase, but the Solar Shield might be able to deliver advance warning of 30 minutes to power grid operators, enabling them to protect their large-scale transformers.

That’s a pretty cool idea, but it’s essentially just an early warning system. It’s like telling you there’s 30 minutes until an asteroid hits your town. What’s there really to do if you’re not a power grid operator – head down to your underground bunker, unplug your electronics and wait it out?

One thing that could be done now is to launch a competition to attract the best ideas from the scientific community, similar to what NASA does with its Innovative Advanced Concepts program. That’s how NASA came up with its WRANGLER scheme to capture asteroids. There are also private sector prize competitions, like the XPrize. Current XPrize competitions include the Google Lunar XPrize, which awards $30 million to the first team that can send a robot to the moon capable of performing certain tasks. The basic idea of any prize competition is relatively simple: Put out a description of what needs to be done, set defined goals, put funding against it to attract the most innovative minds, and then let them come up with a truly creative concept. Surely, a lot of the ideas for protecting the Earth from a solar storm would be purely experimental and theoretical, but there’s time to figure this out.

But maybe not as much time as you might think.

Researchers say the chances of an extreme solar storm hitting the earth within the next decade are close to 12 percent. These storms tend to come in 200-year cycles, and the last big solar storm (the Carrington event) hit the earth back in 1859, which was, you guessed it, almost 200 years ago. Northern lights were spotted as far south as Cuba and Hawaii, telegraph lines sparked and exploded, and the Victorians oohed and aahed about natural effects in the soil and in the air. Just imagine what would happen in today’s Internet era, when just about everything runs on electricity, is hooked up to the Internet, or is tracked by satellites.

It’s time now to start thinking of a solution. A 12 percent chance of a massive Carrington event hitting the Earth within the next decade is scary. The cost of a Carrington event could be close to $2 trillion – that’s the equivalent of 20 Hurricane Katrinas. Those are just the projected costs - we don’t really know what will happen if a Carrington event occurs in the modern Internet era, but it could affect food and water supplies, health and medical facilities and even national security.

As a result, the U.S. needs to be earmarking more research money for fields like heliophysics (i.e. the physics of the sun). We now know, for example, that a natural “plasma shield” appears to protect the Earth from the direct brunt of a solar storm. A New Scientist article recently described how the Earth has a type of “plasma shield” that it uses to protect itself. It’s been noticed that, in the event of extreme solar activity, the Earth’s magnetosphere adjusts in response to the CMEs from the sun. Maybe that system could be exploited or augmented by man-made means to create a shield that powers up or powers down anytime NASA’s early-warning system detects unusual activity.

Maybe all this is just a lot of paranoid thinking brought on by watching H0llywood disaster movies like “Armageddon.” Maybe a bunch of heroes don’t always fire up the spaceship and race against time to save the planet from imminent disaster. But it’s not too late to give up hope that the best and brightest, the people who are currently thinking up new ways to send us to the moon and Mars, will figure out a solution to protect the Earth from the next big solar storm.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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